The sun was going down by the time I left the house.
It was a Thursday in 1989, three weeks before a target race I was hoping to win, and I needed to run a workout that would tell me the one thing I always wanted to know before a big race, was I ready?
I used the mile and a half run to the local college as a warm-up, and then ran a couple easy laps on the empty, dark track.
I planned to do eight half-mile repeats at just faster than race pace with a short half-lap jog that I would cover in about one minute. I had done the same workout dozens of times before, each time feeling slightly apprehensive beforehand. It was hard and brutally honest about my preparedness.
I set my stopwatch to zero, pressed go, and began the first two-lap repeat.
I moved around the turn and away from the blackest side of the track. There was a distant streetlight that shed a soft glow onto the opposite side, causing my own shadow ran up beside me. I could see my legs turning over on the infield as I moved onto the straight.
The first repeat was always one of the hardest. No matter how well I warmed up, it never felt comfortable. I focused on feeling my pace while ignoring the watch, wanting instinct to govern my effort.
The blackness swallowed me again as I rounded the far turn, and I tried to relax as the first lap ended. “One more lap,” were the last three words that entered my mind before I drifted into the trance that protected my consciousness from ruinous thought.
Of all the qualities of success in distance running, I’m convinced that the ability to deeply concentrate is one of the most important. A wandering mind looks for trouble, and when you are running hard trouble is easy to find.
I finished the first repeat and eased into my recovery jog. My breathing settled quickly, and as I moved into the soft glow, I checked my watch – 2:32. Good.
The second repeat felt better than the first one. By then, my blood was flowing freely into the needy muscle fibers. The third and fourth repeats were much like the second, and I ran all three in the exact same time as the first one.
The fifth repeat was harder. The weight of the fatigue was starting to grow, and as I moved into the dim light, I glance over to check my shadow’s cadence. “You can do this,” I reassured myself.
The repeat ended, and my heaving breath found mercy in the minute of recovery. I lifted my wrist into the light - 2:31.
The sixth repeat dared me to give up, but I absorbed myself in the effort, dismissing the distracting thought. I could feel the deep crevices in my lungs pulled for breath, and I knew they were at their limits.
The repeat ended with another 2:32, and I allowed a short celebration in the half-lap recovery, “Just two more.”
The seventh repeat was physically hard, but emotionally lifting. I visualized the final mile of my target race, could see my best competition running beside me, and we kept pace together as I finished the repeat on the dark side of the track.
In the last recovery, my lungs struggled as I jogged around the turn, and hardly settled as I neared the start of the last repeat. But I accelerated as I approached the line, started my watch, and raced around the first turn.
The greatest antidote to discomfort is the knowing it is about to end. I hurt, but I didn’t care. I pushed myself hard, and on the last lap I imagined the stadium was full, bright, and cheering as I ran away from my competition.
I crossed the line, staggered to a walk, and then slowly moved into a spot of light to see the watch – 2:30.
I was exhausted but elated on the jog back home.
Two days later, on tired legs, I ran a relatively relaxed 26:40 to win a five-mile race at Hopkins University, and I had the answer to my question – I was ready.
Then, four miles into my target 10K race, despite what seemed like months of perfect preparation, my concentration broke. It was like having the Novocain wear off too soon, and suddenly my mind shifted away from the task and toward the discomfort. I drifted back from the leaders and ultimately finished in fourth place.
I used to think that I failed, that the hard work was wasted, but I was wrong.
The habit of setting and pursuing goals is an important one. Soon after that race, my serious racing days ended, but the habit didn’t.
There’s more. My spirit has a need to be tested. Everyone’s does. Try it, and see how alive you feel.
There are all kinds of reasons not to try something you want to do, and every one is real. Fear and apprehension torment everybody, but you can resist those things.
And when you do, when you fight back against the demons that have always beat you in the past, there’s no way you can lose.